BRASILIA — The messy business of governing Brazil, a country with 35 active political parties, has long taken place far from the symmetrical towers and domes of Congress that dominate the capital’s skyline.
Instead, backroom deals have been the norm, with the country’s most powerful politicians and business leaders deciding the affairs of government over boozy lunches, steak dinners or drinks in dimly lit hotel bars. The daily scheming and bribing would kick off early, one participant told investigators, often at breakfast in the Golden Tulip Hotel on the city’s outskirts.
But three years into the sweeping corruption probe known as Operation Car Wash, an initiative now targeting more than 100 members of Brazil’s political elite, the dining room at the Golden Tulip is silent. The investigation has upended politics-as-usual in Brasilia and opened up a path for outsiders to have a say in government for the first time in generations.
The Car Wash probe uncovered a complex kickback scheme in which, among other things, Brazil’s largest construction companies paid lawmakers in return for lucrative contracts and favorable legislation. The investigation has been propelled by a string of plea-bargain agreements, leaving longtime friends and allies pitted against one another as more defendants turn state’s witness.
“It’s pretty much paranoia,” said David Fleischer, an expert on Brazilian politics and professor at the University of Brasilia. “At this point, everyone is apprehensive and has a lot of ulcers.”
The intricate system of alliances and favor trading on which the various coalitions depended meant that parties could ignore voters in presidential elections and still wield significant power in Brasilia. Even the current ruling party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, largely avoided contesting presidential elections, preferring to bargain for positions of authority with whichever party was in power.
That system began unraveling in 2015 after the Car Wash probe extended to the ruling government with the arrest of Sen. Delcidio do Amaral for allegedly taking kickbacks from the state-owned oil company, Petrobras, and offering to help a former company head avoid prosecution in exchange for his silence. The executive’s own son recorded Amaral, who had offered to help the executive flee to Spain.
Amaral soon struck a deal of his own with investigators and turned in a recording of the then-education minister offering to pay for the senator’s legal defense if he promised not to collaborate with investigators.
Such deals unfolded for months, snaking their way up the political-establishment ladder and even bringing down the anti-corruption minister, who resigned after leaked recordings appeared to show he had tried to derail the probe. The Car Wash investigation has now reached both heads of Congress, the foreign secretary, President Michel Temer’s chief of staff and five former presidents.
As Brazil’s old guard turns on itself, radicals and outsiders who once operated on the political fringe are taking center stage. These politicians are among the few who have not been implicated in the corruption probe — in part, critics argue, because they were never important enough to take part in the routine swindling engaged in by the governing elite.
“I’m on my seventh mandate, and I’ve never been accused of corruption. That’s like winning a trophy in Brazil,” said Jair Bolsonaro, a self-proclaimed admirer of President Trump and an ultraright representative in Brazil’s lower house. Some polls estimate that support for Bolsonaro — who has called for gay children to be beaten and praised a man who tortured guerrillas such as former president Dilma Rousseff during Brazil’s military dictatorship — at 30 percent among young people planning to vote in the 2018 presidential election. Whether Bolsonaro can parlay that support into a win is questionable, but it mirrors the rise of anti-establishment candidates around the world.
“The conservative majority was silent,” he said. “Now we are ready to fight.”
João Doria, a millionaire who is often compared to Trump, capitalized on this anti-establishment sentiment to win Sao Paulo’s mayoral race last year, claiming he would run the city the way he managed his businesses. Analysts predict that he will be a favorite in the 2018 presidential race.
Rousseff, whose coalition government imploded last year, said in an interview last week that she worries the infighting in Brazil could carve out a path for such a candidate.
“When a government becomes irrelevant, politics becomes irrelevant,” Rousseff said. “It opens a space for patriotic saviors to come through, for politics that just uses symbols and political marketing, and has a strategy based on post-truth.”
But the changes in the landscape have not been lost on the political establishment, whose members are seeking to reinforce their grip on power even as they try to steer clear of Car Wash. Last month, the president of the Senate met with Temer and his top aides to discuss implementation of a closed-list voting system, which would require voters to cast a ballot for a list of politicians generated by each party, rather than for an individual candidate. The party would then distribute seats in Congress accordingly.
The system, which needs a simple majority in Congress to pass, would shelter politicians involved in the corruption probe from the public’s ire by sandwiching them in a list of clean politicians. It would also give party leaders greater say over who can run, neutralizing the risk of outsider candidates.
“The elected political class is mobilizing and creating measures that would make the renewal of the political class in Brazil much more difficult,” said Alexandre Bandeira, a campaign strategist and head of the Strattegia consulting firm in Brasilia. “We have a situation where the people who are currently being investigated are the ones who will decide the rules for 2018.”
For Brazil’s embattled politicians, staying in power past next year’s election is critical. Members of the current government who face criminal charges are tried in the Supreme Court, considered much more lenient than the lower courts. The cases of politicians who lose their seats are relegated to the lower courts, which favor harsh sentences.
But the struggle for power also has broader — and longer-term — implications for Brazil’s citizens.
“We are facing a key moment,” Bandeira said. “The closed-list system will not only limit the players in politics, but it will further alienate an electorate that already feels disassociated from the political class.”